The visits of Makassan fishermen from South Sulawesi, Indonesia, to northern Australia greatly influenced the spiritual and material cultures of the coastal Indigenous peoples. In The Malay Prau, the Anindilyakwa artist, Minimini Mamarika, has depicted a Makassan vessel associated with a place of Indigenous spiritual significance on Bickerton Island, near Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is said that the Makassans built two perahu there in ancestral times, one of which subsequently was transformed into a large rock marked by weathered holes. Mamarika has painted large circles on the hull of the vessel to suggest this unique geological feature.

Charles Mountford, the anthropologist who collected the painting in 1948, supplied the title The Malay prau, reflecting the widespread English use of the term ‘Malay’ at that time and which was inaccurately applied to all Indonesian people. The crews of the Makassan fishing boats sailing to Marege, as they called northern Australia, consisted of a diverse ethnic mix of Makassan, Buginese and other Indonesian sailors.

For hundreds of years Macassan and Bugis fisherman sailed each December (tropical wet season) from their homes in south east Asia to the coast of Arnhem Land (North East Northern Territory) to fish for trepang (sea cucumber). The Macassans also traded items such as metal axes, cloth and rice in exchange for exotic goods such as pearl fish, turtle shell and cypress-pine wood.

After 1901 the newly formed Australian Government banned this trade with the purpose of protecting its borders, with the last prau leaving Arnhem land in 1907.

Although The Malay Prau was painted in the twentieth century it shows that the frequent connection with the Macassans influenced Aboriginal life, incorporating these stories into their history and language. Given Mamarika’s date of birth, it is likely he witnessed the Macassan’s fishing on Groote Eylandt and either depicted this image from memory or oral tradition, or was inspired by rock paintings in Arnhem Land of the Malay prau. Oral culture was rich with traces of this exchange evident in storytelling.

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 4 History

The nature of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and others, for example, the Macassans and the Europeans, and the effects of these interactions on, for example, people and environments (ACHASSK086)

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 5 History

The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants (including Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples) and how the environment changed (ACHASSK107)

The Malay Prau is a visual record of the interaction between Aboriginal people and the visiting fisherman. Why are visual records important? What evidence do we rely on to tell the story of our history? How reliable are these objects? What limitations do oral, written and visual records have? As a class debate their reliability.

Interaction between Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land and fishers from Southeast Asia influenced aspects of Aboriginal
life. Australia’s multicultural society continues to embrace shared values and cultural traditions. Interview someone you know who is from another place. Learn something new about them, their home, traditions and culture. Share these cross- cultural interactions with your class.

Find out more about the bark painting in Arnhem Land. Research another bark painter from Arnhem Land. How does the work by this artist compare to Mamarika’s bark painting? What is similar and different about the location where the works were made, subject matter and materials used? Tip Begin by looking at the work of John Mawurndjul.

John Mawurndjul, Kuninjku people, Northern Territory, born Kubukkan near Marrkolidjban, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory 1952, Namanjwarre, saltwater crocodile, 1988, Mumeka, central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta), 206.0 x 85.0 cm (irreg); Maude Vizard-Wholohan Art Prize Purchase Award 1988, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Courtesy the artist and Maningrida Arts & Culture.